By Dayton Martindale
KRAKOW — A woman stands gaunt and naked facing the camera, the protruding lines of her bones stark in the black and white image. We saw numerous images like this during our two-day visit to Auschwitz. For us, such pictures were a difficult but valuable part of our education; we needed to understand the horror of the past to avoid repeating it.
But what of the photograph’s subject? Is the exhibit an affront to her privacy or dignity? If so, is that counter-weighed by the exhibit’s historical usefulness? Did the museum obtain her consent or that of a family member to display the image? Does it matter who takes such photos — the Allies, the Nazis, other Jews?
On Wednesday afternoon each FASPE group had their final sessions; the journalists discussed “The Ethics of Photographing Violence and Atrocity.” First, we had a free morning in Krakow, though. Journalism fellow Natalie Lampert wrote yesterday’s dispatch, Sarah Maslin and I read at a café and wandered the nearly 800-year-old St. Mary’s Basilica, Katrina Clarke and Harriet Dedman got manicures and Matt Beagle and Chris Crosby got haircuts.
Matt has gotten his hair cut in nearly every country he’s traveled through, including Portugal, Israel and Argentina. “It’s a good way to interact with local people, kind of an adventure and you have to navigate the language to get what you want,” he said. The Polish haircut took nearly an hour: “They treated us like our heads were works of art,” he effused. “You treat it like that and I start to believe it. I feel like it looks pretty good.”
After lunch, we began with a film so we would have visual context for our photography discussion. “It would be great to talk about photography for a few hours,” FASPE faculty member Ari Goldman said. “But if we don’t see images, it’s kind of lost on us.”
The documentary, 2010’s “A Film Unfinished,” overlays footage from an incomplete Nazi propaganda film on the Warsaw Ghetto with narration from contemporary observers, including some who had been in the Ghetto themselves. We have no precise record of the Nazi’s original intent with the film, but based on other information we can guess that their goals were at least twofold: to dehumanize the Jews, and to show that some Jews, even in the ghetto, lived approximations of middle- or even upper-class lives. This both masked the deplorable conditions and shifted the blame from the perpetrators to their victims; the Nazis exploited internal divisions within the Jewish community to reduce solidarity, giving a small subset jobs in policing and administration while the majority suffered.
In the ensuing discussion, Matt suggested that intent matters when processing these images. To watch Nazi propaganda unfiltered may re-victimize the subject, but “A Film Unfinished” juxtaposes the propaganda with the survivors’ counter-narrative. In some ways this subverts the Nazis’ message.
We also brought the discussion into the contemporary. For example, a widely seen photo taken in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., shows a woman grieving in front of a local church. The photo’s subject, Aline Marie, later said she felt the cameras had been intrusive and wished the photographer had at least introduced himself. There is no professional requirement that photographers ask permission from subjects they encounter in public spaces. But if we’ve learned anything from FASPE, it’s that meeting the bare minimum of legal and professional norms is not always sufficient to stay truly ethical. Opinions in our group ran the gamut on this issue, given practical and logistical concerns particular to photography. Context is key when determining how to act.
We took a quick break before our final session on “What We Owe Our Readers and Ourselves.” Many countries around the world are seeing the resurgence of far-right movements reminiscent of the early 1930s, and FASPE founder David Goldman sat in on our discussion to remind us that the United States is grappling with the rise of a demagogue of its own. (Trump, we’ve realized, is something of an obsession for David.)
We then went around the table and shared one ethical insight that we would take away from this trip that will help us confront our present times. Harriet reminded us that the Holocaust did not happen overnight and took a long time to build up to. This may cause concern about where the future will lead, but it also gives the press time to push back against negative trends. Others focused on the contemporary, the nuts and bolts of the craft, the need to be more transparent and open with the public.
After we spoke, Ari had one last item on his agenda. He went around the room and shared a particularly striking memory of each of us, a moment or comment that stood out to him in defining our character. We promised to stay in touch, pitch and edit each other’s work, collaborate on projects and simply visit and chat from time to time. With that, Ari declared with a smile, “Class dismissed.”